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Unravelling the development of writing

Student activities

Task no. 1

The Cuneiform

Background notes for students 

Sources: A quick recap 

Primary sources provide evidence about a period of time and were created at that time in history. Historians draw on a wide range of primary sources to put together their arguments when creating secondary sources (sources created after the time being studied).  

One type of primary source is an artefact, a manufactured object.  

It is important that historians interrogate all sources carefully to establish their reliability and usefulness, and to understand the perspective provided by the source (i.e. to consider how much of the ‘story’ it tells).  


The Development of Writing 

The development of writing signified a major turning point in the history of the human race. Whilst humans are thought to have developed spoken language c. 35 000 BCE, written language did not emerge until its invention in Sumer, southern Mesopotamia, c 3500-3000 BCE. This early writing was called cuneiform.  

The Sumerians first invented writing as a means of long-distance communication, necessitated by trade. This system of writing was recorded in clay bricks, many of which survive to this day and provide historians with written evidence of this ancient society.  

The cuneiform was made using a carefully cut writing implement know as a stylus, made of reed found along the rivers. This was pressed onto soft, wet clay to produce wedge-like impressions that represent word-signs (pictographs) and, later, phonograms or ‘word-concepts’. The clay was then allowed to bake in the sun. 

The Sumerian city of Uruk, in particular, advanced the writing of cuneiform and it is from this city that the cuneiform tablet held by the State Library of NSW originates.  


The State Library of NSW’s Cuneiform 

The State Library of NSW has one cuneiform tablet in its collections. According to records from the time, the tablet was donated in 1940 by a Mr J. Yared who migrated to Australia from Syria. Dating from c. 1860BCE the inscription, written in Sumerian, provides evidence that the artefact dates from the rule of Sîn-kāšid, King of the city of Uruk, located in the south of modern-day Iraq.  

Baked at the time of its creation, this treatment has allowed the tablet to survive in such an intact state for almost 3900 years.  

The inscription records the king’ name, titles and epithets, and states he built a royal palace.  

This tablet would have been one of many objects, including bricks, clay cones and other tablets, all with the same inscription. These objects were recovered from the foundations of Sîn-kāšid’s palace at Uruk where they had been placed on every fourth course (row) of bricks during the construction of this building. The reason this was done was to ensure that when the mud-brick palace needed renovation in the future, anyone working on the bricks would find these records, read Sîn-kāšid’s name and learn about his deeds, and his legacy would survive. 




mighty man,  

king of Uruk, 

king of the Amnanum (tribe), 

provider for E-anna,  

the palace of 

his royalty,  

did build. 



Consider the information above, study the cuneiform from the State Library of New South Wales collections (see below), and answer the following questions (conducting further research, where necessary): 

  • What was the purpose of this cuneiform? (Hint: Think about what it says, where it was placed, and what this might say about King Sîn-kāšid?) 
  • Who is the intended audience? 
  • Provide an example from another society, ancient or modern, where those in power have used similar strategies to make statements about themselves. 
[Clay tablet with Sumerian cuneiform inscription], ca. 2000B.C.
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Task no. 2

Writing Technology

Consider the writing on the cuneiform (see above), and answer the following questions (conducting further research, where necessary): 

  • Why are there no curves in the writing on the cuneiform? (Hint: Consider the way in which the tablet was made and the tools that were used to create the writing.)  

Consider how we form writing today, specifically handwriting, and answer the following question:

  • What technological changes may account for the change in the way modern handwriting looks compared to the cuneiform? 

Task no. 3

Extension Activities

  1. Look at the example of Egyptian Hieroglyphs from the collection of the State Library of NSW (on the page from the the collection item, below - the hieroglyphs can be found on the wall in the background of the image), and research other examples of writing systems such as that of Ancient Greek and Latin, the emergence of the Arabic alphabet and Mesoamerican writing. In order to understand changing writing styles over time, plot the approximate period of emergence of these scrips on a timeline.  
  2. Recreate the cuneiform (see above) as closely as possible to the original method of creation.
Description de l'Égypte, p.4,
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